Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"The Church teaches..."

I say it all the time. I hear other people saying it all the time. You read it all the time in the newspapers and magazines and on the 'net.

"The Church teaches..." that homosexual acts are sinful...that women cannot be ordained...just to take a few of the MSM's favourites. And sometimes you will even see the (1992) Catechism quoted (well, of course, not often and never in the New York Times, but occasionally) directly on the subjects.

But what is much more infrequently (ie. never) mentioned is the reason the Church teaches the things she does. And the reason she remains "intransigent" on things like women's ordination and same-sex marriage. Here's a little secret that we would like journalists to understand better: When a Catholic, from the pope on down to the parish tea-lady, says "the Church teaches..." they mean "it is objectively true that..." In other words, neither the Pope, nor the parish tea lady has any more power to change it than they have the power to change the rate at which gravity makes things fall down.

What is rarely understood is that the Church approaches these things like a scientist approaches an observable phenomenon. The scientist, when looking at something through a telescope or microscope, asks himself "What is this? What does it do? What is it made of?" He wants to know what is the actual, objective truth is about the phenomenon. He observes its characteristics and writes them down. He tests his observations by setting up experiments and repeating the experiments to see if the observations are always the same. He asks a set of questions about it based on axioms, things that are self-evidently true and are impossible to doubt. In the Laws of Rational Thought, an axiom is what you have to start with, to base your investigations on, if you want to understand anything.

For the Greeks, who invented the idea, an axiom was a claim which could be seen to be true without any need for proof. The deductive method of finding things out means observing a phenomenon, and asking questions about it based on existing premises, or things we already know. When all these pieces fit together, then you can be pretty sure (Thomas might say "morally certain") that the thing you conclude is true.

The Church, similarly, when presented with a new thing, cloning and embryonic stem cell research for example, starts by examining it and asking a set of questions based on what we already know. Both the Natural Law and Revelation give us a set of moral axioms to build with. "Thou shalt not kill," being one that most people are familiar with. Understood properly, it means no individual may kill another individual unless it is for self defence or defence of another.

From this moral axiom, we can draw all kinds of helpful conclusions about things that St. Augustine and Thomas never heard of, like the Vietnam War and germline gene splicing.

One of the best and contemporarily most useful documents the Church has put out recently demonstrating not only What the Church Teaches on embryo research, but the methods the Church uses to come to binding moral conclusions was Donum Vitae, the 1986 document put out by Cardinal Ratzinger's CDF on the new reproductive technologies.

I'd recommend reading it, or at least taking a look, because it really does give an excellent demonstration of the theological scientific methods used by the Church to make conclusions. The question and answer format makes it clear why, exactly, you can't do the various things the Church says you can't do to embryos. And here's the kicker, it's based on real science, not the pseudo-scientific mush most modern Bioethicists ("pre-embryo" anyone?) cite when they say that cloning and embryo research are just fine and dandy.

In other words, despite what the likes of the Dawkinses and the Sr. Grammicks of the world might think, there is really nothing arbitrary about Catholic teaching. And, as Michael says above, when a Catholic says, "The Church teaches..." he is saying, more or less, "It is objectively true that..." He is, moreover, saying, "...and we can prove it."


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